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The World Emperor
By Harald Kleinschmidt
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Harald Kleinschmidt
All rights reserved.
Dramatis Personae: The Dynasties
CREATING A FAMILY OF RULERS
A duke meets the emperor
Appearances matter. Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and ruler over a plethora of territories within the Holy Roman Empire and beyond its western fringes, spared no pomp when he met Emperor Frederick III in the city of Trier in 1473. Trier was gleaming with symbols of empire. Once a residential imperial capital in the bygone days of antiquity, it still featured ruins of once-lavish Roman baths, of imperial palaces and a well-preserved gate that remained in use as a church. In the Middle Ages, the city became the seat of an archbishopric, and as an archiepiscopal metropolis it wielded considerable influence over the empire, the Netherlands as well as France. When meeting the emperor in the monastery of St Maximin, Charles the Bold brought along stupendous manifestations of his wealth, decorating the meeting-place with tapestries and precious pieces of art and dressing himself up in the most elegant of garments that his manufacturers could produce. Frederick III was unable to equal Charles's splendour. The emperor was poor as an officeholder, as he depended on the revenues that the lesser rulers in the empire were willing to award to him. But Frederick had immaterial treasures to offer, namely an impressive genealogy of ancestors and the right to designate his successor. In 1473, Frederick had been at the helm of the empire for thirty-three years while using the time to advance the fame of his dynasty, the Habsburgs. He tried to keep his own branch of the dynasty in the imperial office, and thus boosted the expectation that his son Maximilian, born in 1459, would be the heir to all Habsburg dominions. The Habsburgs were in control of areas scattered in what is today Austria, Switzerland, southern Germany, northern Italy and Slovenia, outnumbering the holdings of Charles the Bold. Frederick's marriage to Eleonore of Portugal secured him good connections to one of the most dynamic economies in fifteenth-century Europe next to the realms under the control of Charles the Bold. Imperial genealogists were compiling preposterous family trees that connected Frederick with the Frankish kings of the early Middle Ages; the ancient Roman aristocratic family of the Colonna; Hector and Aeneas, the heroes of the Trojan War; the ancient Roman emperors; Osiris, the ancient Egyptian hero; and Noah, the biblical father. Frederick did not forget to bring a booklet with his genealogies to Trier, which he put on display before his counterpart.
By Frederick's standards, Charles was nobody. As a descendant of the French royal dynasty of the Valois he could reiterate their claim to descent from the Trojans. Moreover, if Frederick's wife was a Portuguese princess, so was Charles's mother Isabella. But his own branch had split off from the French royal dynasty merely four generations ago when establishing itself as the dukes of Burgundy. True, Charles cared little about legal niceties and used his wealth to demonstrate his power. He even created a propagandistic fancy that portrayed the duke of Burgundy at a rank similar to that of the Roman emperor. But King Louis XI of France, Charles's archrival, contended these claims and insisted that the dukes of Burgundy were his disloyal vassals. Charles could only hope to be able to continue to live up to his image of a wealthy and powerful ruler equal to the emperor and kings of France, England and Portugal if he succeeded in demonstrating his ability to resist Louis's claims for suzerainty. Charles's dilemma was thus that he could use his wealth and power only as long as he was able to keep his position of autonomy, but could hope to succeed in the long run merely if he found an alliance partner. Frederick, of course, knew Charles's dilemma well. Yet at Trier, Charles had his trump cards. His third wife, whom he had married in 1468, was Margaret of York, sister of King Edward IV. Through this marriage he was thus allied with the English kings. By his second wife Isabella of Bourbon he had a daughter, Mary, born in 1457 and thus matching Maximilian in age. And this was why the two rulers met at Trier: if it was possible to mate their children, a power house would come into existence that could bring together the ruling dynasties of the Roman Empire, Burgundy, England and Portugal. The combination could not only secure Charles's position against Louis XI of France, but offered golden opportunities in the dreams of ambitious fathers.
As Frederick wanted Charles's money together with his daughter and Charles wanted Frederick's status together with his son, the deal seemed to be straightforward. But Charles knew his value. He demanded nothing less than the imperial crown in exchange for his daughter. In Charles's view, the deal was this: Mary would marry Maximilian, Charles would succeed Frederick as emperor, and Maximilian would succeed Charles. Nicknamed 'the rash' by his junior contemporaries, Charles would neither take into account that the ageing Frederick might continue to occupy the imperial throne for another twenty years nor imagine that Louis XI would be able to mobilise a formidable enemy against his disloyal vassal. Nevertheless, Charles's conditions were tough for Frederick. The empire was not a hereditary monarchy, as the emperors were elected by a college of seven rulers bearing the appropriate title 'electors'. What if these electors refused to consent to Charles's demands? Frederick hesitated, and the meeting ended in a draw. Mary was betrothed to Maximilian and further decisions were postponed to the future.
The future that forced Frederick to make decisions came sooner than he may have anticipated. Louis XI concluded an agreement with the Swiss canton of Bern that allowed him to rally Swiss warriors against Charles. By 1476, the Swiss were ready for battle, and Charles decided to face the enemy. Drawing on his revenues, he assembled the most modern of armies, equipped with high-technology weapons, such as mortars, cannon and portable firearms, and staffed with numerous well-trained warriors. He loaded the big cannon on wheels, so that they could be hauled quickly and with ease wherever they were needed. He added a large cavalry and requested enforcements with longbowmen from his English relatives. He carefully planned tactical arrangements for battle that allowed him a maximum of flexible responses. The Swiss appeared to be no match for this fighting force. They relied mainly on a long variant of the lance, called the pike, a weapon that farmers could use with ease, together with a small cavalry and a few firearms. They ordered the pikemen into one large battalion called 'the heap', which could march straight forwards to strike at the enemy but could hardly manoeuvre. Hence, all odds pointed against the Swiss, and yet they won the first battle against Charles at Grandson early in 1476 because Charles simply could not break into the carefully maintained Swiss rank and file. Charles was again defeated at Murten later in the same year, when he lost much of his valuable equipment. In the third battle, at Nancy in January 1477, Charles's army was completely destroyed and the duke's body was discovered in the mud only days after the battle had ended. Louis XI's proxy warriors had done their job well.
The emperor's son and the duke's daughter get married
Maximilian, then approaching the age of eighteen, was eager to have his marriage concluded. Under the given conditions Mary, the new reigning duchess of Burgundy, had no choice but to accept the deal. Maximilian thus entered the stage as a juvenile warrior willing to take up the defence of the Burgundian realms against Louis XI, the old man in Paris. The campaigns proved protracted and difficult. The loyalty of the estates, namely the urban governments and seigneurial lords in Charles's vast realms, was shaken by the defeats at Grandson, Murten and Nancy. Revenue came in less easily and, above all, there were thorny legal issues. With Charles the Bold gone, Maximilian was the unquestioned heir apparent in the empire. As the husband of the reigning duchess of Burgundy, he was theoretically a vassal to the French king. As the future emperor could hardly accept being dependent on the French king, Burgundy would have to be constituted as a polity of its own, so to speak, between France and the empire. But this strategy would lead to a Habsburg–Valois rift and deepen the antagonism between the empire and the kingdom of France. Through his campaigns for the Habsburg succession over Burgundy, Maximilian tried to prevent Louis XI from calling back his fief. Maximilian thus faced the awkward task of restoring the loyalty of the Burgundian estates without breaking with the French king. Luckily, Maximilian's fighting force of German lansquenets gained a victory at Guinegate in 1479, rescuing Artois, Tournai and Picardy for Maximilian. Through her so-called 'Great Privilege' of 1477, Mary succeeded in soliciting support from the Burgundian estates by confirming their liberties, some of which the previous dukes had alienated. The privilege restored the right of self-government and became the equivalent of a constitution for Burgundy and the Netherlands. However, Maximilian failed to retain the core part of the duchy of Burgundy around the city of Dijon, once the residential capital of the dukes. The Franche-Comté of Burgundy around Besançon remained contested, although the dukes continued to hold extensive stretches of land there. Yet the ducal power base moved northwards near the urban landscapes of Brabant and Flanders, with Brussels strengthening its position as the administrative centre.
Meanwhile, the Burgundian ducal family grew. Two children, Philip and Margaret, were born in 1478 and 1480. They were named after Mary's grandfather and her stepmother and thus, through their names, displayed their parents' willingness to continue the Burgundian heritage. Maximilian was deeply impressed by the splendour of Burgundian court life, the rigour of administrative techniques and the aesthetic refinement of production and reproduction in the arts and crafts. Burgundy appeared to have a future not only as an intermediary between France and the empire but also as a type of polity later to be referred to as the state. However, that bright future was seriously jeopardised when Mary fell from her horse in 1482 while enjoying a hunting excursion and died. Mary's sudden and premature death was a shock for Maximilian, as his emotional ties to his wife were strong. Even as an old man he remembered her with love and devotion in a lavish piece of literature that described his Burgundian campaign in the style of a medieval wooing epic. Yet the grief over the sudden loss of his beloved wife was surmounted by political worries. King Louis XI of France died in 1483, leaving the French throne to his son, a young man who succeeded as Charles VIII. Fortunately for Maximilian, Charles VIII displayed less concern for Burgundian affairs than his father but developed a keener interest in Italian matters. But the question was whether the Burgundian estates accepted Maximilian as their ruler. Maximilian decided to take the risk and had himself quickly invested as duke of Burgundy. At least he had two children, was himself ready for another marriage and intended to use the opportunity strategically to promote a Habsburg–Valois rapprochement. By 1483, he had sent his daughter Margaret to the court of Louis XI to prepare her for the marriage with the future Charles VIII. In 1489, he agreed to marry Anne, the reigning duchess of Brittany, at Rennes where she was under siege by French troops seeking to incorporate the duchy into the French kingdom. Because Maximilian could not reach Rennes in person, Anne had her marriage concluded by proxy. Anne appealed for help to a coalition consisting of Maximilian, King Henry VII of England and King Ferdinand of Aragon. But French military pressure continued until, eventually, Anne agreed to cancel her marriage with Maximilian and, instead, to wed Charles VIII. After Charles's death in 1498, she married his successor Louis XII and her daughter Claude married Francis of Angoulême in 1514, who followed Louis XII as Francis I in 1515. Maximilian shelved his plans for a dynastic union between Habsburg and Valois in 1490 and Margaret returned to her father.
To make things worse, Maximilian's Yorkist relatives were defeated at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. Maximilian hastily supported an abortive rebellion by Yorkist loyalists against the new king, Henry VII. The rebellion collapsed in 1487 but Henry remained a difficult partner for Maximilian. Moreover, Maximilian's position in the Netherlands remained shaky. Some of the Flemish cities insisted that Maximilian should confirm Mary's 'Great Privilege'. But he was reluctant to do so. While his lansquenets were campaigning in Flanders he was engaged in negotiations with urban governments to restore their loyalty by means of diplomacy. Soon his lansquenets' arrogance sent some cities into revolt. At Bruges angry citizens arrested Maximilian early in 1488 and detained him for about two months until he promised to confirm their liberties. A year later, when his position had been strengthened by his lansquenets' victory at Thérouanne, Maximilian returned to Bruges, levelled the house where he had been detained to the ground and punished the citizens for their insurgency. Meanwhile, trouble was mounting in the empire, and Maximilian was summoned to his duties there. In 1486, Frederick III arranged for the coronation of his son as 'king of the Romans', an office that was understood to make apparent the heir to the imperial throne. The ceremony was necessary because in 1485, Matthew Corvinus, king of Hungary, had conquered Vienna, driving Frederick out of his residential capital. Maximilian received the task of restoring Vienna to Habsburg control. At the same time, Frederick placed a further burden upon his son's shoulders, and that was the crusade against the Ottoman Turkish Empire. In the proclamation announcing Maximilian's installation as 'king of the Romans', Frederick announced that the new king would march against the Turkish sultan in the foreseeable future and requested support from everyone in the empire. The crusade, the defence of the Roman Empire and the maintenance of Habsburg rule over the Netherlands remained the three issues that dominated Maximilian's world and European and local politics to the end of his life.
The old emperor dies and his son succeeds
Pursuing policies at these three levels and with equal rigour proved to be a formidable task. Control over the Netherlands involved fewer difficulties than expected although the relationship with France remained strained. Maximilian succeeded in ending Matthew Corvinus's control over Vienna in 1490, and Frederick could return home. When Frederick finally died in 1493, Maximilian succeeded to the helm of the empire without any problems, although he never received his imperial coronation from the pope. Yet Charles VIII opened a new front in 1494 by intervening in Italian affairs and leading an army that penetrated into the peninsula as far south as Naples. Although Charles's efforts to impose himself as a major actor in Italian affairs were soon thwarted by shortages of supply and a want of devoted partners in 1495, the intervention sent shock waves through the establishments of territorial rulers and urban governments as well as into the mindsets of private intellectuals. Members of all three groups became beset with the impression that the Italian peninsula was politically divided and militarily weak. They traded on the fear that Italian liberties were at stake and demanded strong measures of defence against possible future invasions. This momentous quest for autonomy raised Maximilian's concerns because the emperor was legally the overlord of a variety of Italian polities, the most important being the duchy of Milan. Hence, any Habsburg strategy in pursuit of expanding the imperial influence over these polities against France would inevitably trigger anti-Habsburg responses from territorial rulers, urban governments and the intellectual public opinion-makers.
Excerpted from Charles V by Harald Kleinschmidt. Copyright © 2012 Harald Kleinschmidt. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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